Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg was noticeably emotional this afternoon when speaking about the death of his boyhood idol and college baseball coach, Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, who died Monday of salivary gland cancer at 54.
“It’s tough because the last couple of weeks, no one really knew what was going on,” Strasburg said. “I mean, just from my perspective, he was like a god to me growing up. How much he did for San Diego and for baseball all over the country. You never would have thought that would be the way it would happen.”
Before Strasburg was a great pitcher, he loved watching baseball and seeing Gwynn play in his hometown of San Diego.
“I was a fan first,” Strasburg said. “I couldn’t tell you I was probably 4 years old when I first started watching the Padres. He was my favorite player from the first game. It just so happens that our lives seem to intertwine and I ended up making it to the big leagues. It’s pretty tough to swallow right now.”
Gwynn was known by others for his incredible exploits as a hitter for the San Diego Padres. But Strasburg got to know Gwynn as a person when he was recruited to play baseball for San Diego State.
“This is a guy, he put other people before himself,” Strasburg said. “I just remember the first day I was on campus at San Diego State and one of the first things he said is, ‘Yeah, I am going to the Hall of Fame this year, but I am just your coach.’
“There are so many things I am never going to forget just with my time playing for him. He has impacted so many players through the course of the years and I am just so blessed to be one of them.”
Strasburg said he learned some important life lessons from his time with Gwynn.
“It started with how to be a man, how to handle the ups and downs,” Strasburg said. “Not everything goes your way in life and certainly not in this game. I think that is one of those things, (and) from a personal perspective, I struggled with that. He really helped me understand that it is not necessarily the results, it’s the work you put in every single day. That’s what matters at the end of the day. That you give it everything you got.”
One of the special moments in Strasburg’s career was when Gwynn was in attendance at Nationals Park, alongside Strasburg’s immediate family, to watch the right-hander make his major league debut against the Pirates.
“It is funny,” Strasburg said. “I have family a couple of hours down south in Virginia. I was talking to my great uncle and he is not doing great health-wise. But we were sitting there talking and he’s like, ‘That was so cool watching your game, I had Tony Gwynn sitting right next to me telling me everything you were doing out there.’
“Coach, he became a part of my family, as well. He wasn’t going to miss that. I thought it was such a special experience from my family specifically to be there watching it, my debut, with this legend back in San Diego.”
But the last couple of years, Strasburg knew Gwynn was in bad health and was fighting cancer each day.
“It became pretty tough here the last couple years with health issues and everything,” Strasburg said. “But every time we come into San Diego, I made sure to stop by and say hello. Obviously, I’d come by a lot in the offseason. This last offseason was probably the least amount. It is just unfortunate this time around, (it was) hitting him pretty hard.”